Envisioning a community center

Last modified: 10/26/2010 12:00:00 AM
Residents at a public meeting last night appeared to favor having the city take over the Dame School property from the Concord School District, with an eye to using the school and adjacent Keach Park for a new community center on the Heights in coming years.

About 80 people attended the presentation and forum at the Dame School, including Mayor Jim Bouley, City Manager Tom Aspell, Superintendent Chris Rath, and members of the city council and school board.

As part of the school district's consolidation of elementary schools, students attending Dame School will, in 2012, begin attending a new school to be built next to Broken Ground School.

That would leave Dame School vacant - and a possible home for Concord's proposed citywide community center, said Matthew Walsh, the city's assistant for special projects.

If the city council decided to place such a facility there, the existing Heights community center next to Dame School would be razed to make way for the new center, along with about 17,000 square feet of the 40,000 square-foot school building, Walsh told the audience.

One wing of the school building would be used for art and other space, while a new gym, exercise room and indoor turf field with a track could be built next to it, said project architect Jay Doherty of The H.L. Turner Group.

Walsh declined to give a price tag or timeline for the project, but he said the team working on it is due to present a plan to the city council in January.

Project manager Bill Hickey of the Turner Group said an alternative, renovating the four existing community centers to bring them up to code, would cost $5 million to $6 million.

If the citywide community center were built, Walsh said, the West Street Ward House center would probably be used by the city for other purposes, and the East Concord center could be rented out for other uses. The Green Street community center would likely remain in use, to provide a second center on the west side of the Merrimack River.

Following the presentation, residents began discussing details of the proposed community center, including parking.

One woman asked if the new center could be used for an indoor farmers market. (Hickey said the center would be "as multi-use as possible.") Neighbor Tricia Foisey asked if the city had considered the traffic impact on the area or adding more sidewalks in the vicinity. (Walsh said sidewalks might be needed to make the center more pedestrian-friendly.)

But City Manager Tom Aspell reined in the discussion, trying to keep it focused on the question of whether the Dame School should remain a public facility, taken over by the city from the schools, or not.

"I love the enthusiasm" for the community center plans, Aspell said, "but it's way far down the line."

The consensus seemed to be that the school should remain in public hands.

"I think you have the start of a very, very good plan," said resident Will Ashworth.

Kassandra Ardinger, president of the school board, said there hasn't been any decision about what the district would want from the city in exchange for the property.

"We have yet to have discussions about what kind of exchange that would be," she said, since the board wanted public feedback on the general plan before starting negotiations.

And a decision on what exactly, if anything, would be built on the site is still to come.

City Councilor Dick Patten, whose Ward 8 includes the school, said before last night's meeting he favors the city taking over the property, but he isn't sold yet on the tentative plan for a new community center. He questioned whether the existing school building, which was built in 1941 and expanded in the 1960s, could be a cheaper option for a community center.

As the city looks at building a new library, a fire training facility and one or two new community centers, Patten said, "Where is the money going to come from?"

(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or bleubsdorf@cmonitor.com.)

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